Options for those who fail WASL explored

By Linda Shaw

When teacher Ian Duncan got the list of his students who failed the writing section of last spring's Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), some of the names surprised him. He figures nerves got the best of a couple of them, or lack of sleep. And it really took him aback that it included two students who received an A in his language-arts class at Sammamish High.

Next fall, however,
Duncan may be able to offer students a different way to show they deserve to graduate, even if they fail the WASL. This school year, he's helping pilot one leading possibility: Allowing students to submit a collection of class work for a state or regional panel of teachers to review.

"I'm a huge proponent of the idea that there are multiple ways to assess student learning,"
Duncan said. "We need to try every way possible so we don't miss any kids."

The Legislature voted in 2004 to allow alternatives to the 10th-grade WASL when passing that exam becomes a graduation requirement in 2008. Just what those alternatives might be, however, is now becoming clear.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recently put the finishing touches on its two proposals — the portfolio of class work that
Duncan is helping pilot, and a comparison of a student's grades with those of classmates who took at least two of the same classes, yet passed the WASL.

Those proposals had their first hearing Thursday in
Olympia. The Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, is working on yet other ideas, as is former Gov. Booth Gardner.

There's wide agreement that alternatives should be available — and soon. But lots of debate is expected over what kind of alternatives and, even more contentious, when students should be able to choose them.

The recommendations from the state superintendent's office stick with what state law now requires: This year's sophomores must fail the 10th-grade WASL twice before they can opt for an alternative in any of the three subjects they must pass by 2008: reading, writing and math.

After that, however, OSPI is proposing that students can continue to retake the test (for free up to three more times) or choose one of two alternatives: submit a portfolio of their work, or a comparison of their grades with their peers. In the latter, OSPI has outlined a rather complicated method of comparing one student's marks with those of at least six other students at his school who took at least two of the same classes and passed the WASL by a small margin.

OSPI officials considered but ruled out a simpler grade-point comparison, said Bob Butts, who's heading up the so-called "alternative assessment" effort at OSPI. There's just too much variability in the way different schools grade and the difficulty of classes that different students take, he said.

The agency also considered but decided against letting end-of-course exams or the SAT replace the WASL if students' scores were high enough.

OSPI favored the grade and portfolio approaches in part because teachers and others wanted some way for a student's class work, done over time, to count as much as a single morning with a No. 2 pencil, Butts said.

Many of the details still are under discussion, such as what kind of work a student would have to submit in the portfolio, and whether students would have to reach a certain score on the WASL in order to use the grade comparison. Some of the answers will come after the teachers finish the pilot this spring.

One challenge is to ensure any alternative isn't just an easy way around the WASL, Butts said, and can be scored fairly. But he's convinced that can be done.

Lawmakers also will discuss proposals to allow students to choose an alternative without having to fail the WASL first. Those are at the heart of proposals from Gardner and the Washington Education Association.

The WEA, for example, is working on a point system in which students would need to earn a certain number to graduate. Grades, for example, would get the most weight — perhaps a maximum of 70 out of a possible 100 points for students with all A's. The WASL, however, might just be worth a maximum of 10.

To WEA President Charles Hasse, that puts the WASL in its proper context — as one measure, not the deciding factor in whether a student graduates.

In the meantime, however, the pilots of OSPI's methods are going forward at Sammamish High and about 19 other schools statewide.


 Linda Shaw
Seattle Times